Mervyn Malcolm Dymally, who in 1962 became the first foreign-born Black to be elected to the California State Assembly, has died. Dymally, who’s health had declined in recent months, succumbed Sunday, Oct. 7. He was 86.
According to a recent OurWeekly article by Gregg Reese (Sept. 27-Oct. 3.), a chance encounter at a Fresno conference in 1961 during which Dymally offered Assemblyman Augustus F. Hawkins a ride back to Los Angeles, the decision was made for Dymally to run for Hawkins’ seat, which then included Compton, East Compton, Paramount, Florence-Graham and portions of Long Beach, South Los Angeles and Willowbrook.
Hawkins, who had been a pioneer and mentor to Blacks in California politics, went on the serve in Congress. Dymally would quickly take up Hawkins’ mantel, also becoming a pioneer and mentor to Black politicians, including Maxine Waters, Julian Dixon, Diane Watson, Herb Wesson, Yvonne Burke, Mark Ridley-Thomas, the late Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes and the late congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald.
Dymally was born in Cedros, Trinidad in the British West Indies, on May 12, 1926, to Hamid A. and Andreid S. (Richardson) Dymally. He attended Trinidad’s Cedros Government School, as well as St. Benedict and Naparima Secondary School.
In Trinidad, he once worked as a reporter and labor organizer, but he left home in 1946 to come to the United States. In 1954, he earned his bachelor of arts degree in education from Cal State Los Angeles.
Dymally taught secondary school in Los Angeles,also taught government and would eventually teach at the Claremont Colleges, UC Davis and UC Irvine. While teaching secondary school, Dymally volunteered as a campaign worker and joined the California Young Democrats where he served as state treasurer.
In 1960, he worked for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles which nominated John F. Kennedy for president; he was also a field coordinator for the Kennedy presidential campaign.
In 1966, Dymally became the first African American to serve in the California State Senate and in 1974, the first to become the state’s lieutenant governor. In the California Senate, Dymally once chaired the Democratic caucus, three full committees on social welfare, military and veterans’ affairs, and a joint committee on women’s legal equality. He authored legislation that eventually resulted in the state’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Dymally was also chairman of the California State Black Caucus.
In 1980, Dymally was elected to the 31st Congressional District and became one of the that body’s most prominent and effective advocates of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, labor and wage laws and affirmative action programs.
Dymally’s 31st Congressional District encompassed portions of Los Angeles County that were quite different from his early, predominantly Black and Latino constituencies. These neighborhoods included Koreatown, north to Eagle Rock, east to Lincoln Heights and a small portion of South Los Angeles. Dymally’s political savvy and attention to the socioeconomic needs of his constituency allowed him to garner winning votes from Asian, Latino, White and Black communities.
In 1981, Dymally won assignments on the Foreign Affairs, District of Columbia and Science and Technology, and the Education and Labor committees. From 1987-89, he chaired the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Most members of Congress are influenced by op-ed pieces, pundits and ideology,” Dymally said during an interview in March. “Many felt it not appropriate to speak to those to disagree with them. My position was just the opposite. Therefore, I traveled all over the world–187 countries–talking to democrats, autocrats, socialists and fascists to educate myself about them. It was part of my intellectual curiosity.”
As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Operations, Dymally became a leading spokesperson on human rights and economic development, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Dymally was an outspoken opponent of the apartheid regime in South Africa and helped advocate the imposition of sanctions against the minority White government there.
He made numerous trips to Africa and pushed for a focus on a wider spectrum of issues, on that continent, ranging from human relations to trade, noting that: “…[because] African countries are moving toward democracy, human rights belongs to a subcommittee on human rights; and there is an absence of trade between Africa and African Americans, in particular, and America, in general.”
Dymally was sensitive to the political, economic and immigrant concerns affecting countries in the Caribbean. He was an advocate for Haitian immigrants in the United States, once stating: “The Haitian system is very oppressive . . . the taking of a life is like pouring a cup of coffee. Poor people have no rights at all.”
He was critical of the Soviet Union for refusing to allow Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel, and critical of Israel for continuing its trade with South Africa and suppressing Palestinian protest efforts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He spoke against Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic government for its bellicose rhetoric toward Israel.
Nationally, Dymally consistently spoke about the minority issues that were important to his constituency and other urban districts nationwide. He chaired the District of Columbia Subcommittee on Judiciary and Education and supported congressional representation for the city, which has a majority African American population, as well as increasing funding for education programs there.
Dymally’s reputation in Congress–and his portrayal by the media–was sometimes that of a brash and blunt insider. He was criticized nationally when he argued that the Reagan Administration’s emphasis on slashing entitlement programs in the 1980s had made it exceedingly difficult for urban districts and the members who represented them.
In February 1992, Dymally announced his retirement from the House at the end of the 102nd Congress (January 1993). During his retirement, Dymally worked as a foreign affairs consultant for Caribbean, African and Asian interests. In 2002, he was elected once again to the California State Assembly, representing Compton, Paramount and Long Beach. During this time, he was elected chairman of the Assembly’s Democratic study group, which worked to develop and promote progressive legislation. In 2001, a Compton post office was named for him.
Having had an enduring interest in education, he earned his master of arts in government from Cal State Sacramento in 1969 and his Ph.D. from United States International University in 1976.
“My beloved husband of 44 years Mervyn Dymally passed away very peacefully this [Sunday] morning at 6:30 a.m.,” said his wife Alice Gueno Dymally, who recently lost her mother Alice Walker Gueno. “He lived a very extraordinary life and had no regrets.”
Beside his wife, Alice, Dymally is survived by a son, Mark and a daughter, Lynn, the latter a professor at Cal State Long Beach; three sisters; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services are pending.
For more on Dymally, see the Sept. 27 article “Mervyn Dymally: travels and intrigues” at www.ourweekly.com.
See also www.Ourweekly.com for additional comments from legislators on Dymally’s impact on California politics.